If you boiled down all the self- help books in the world and added the wisdom of Solomon, you could not improve on these three words: get up early. So the findings of Dr Joerg Huber, presented to the British Psychological Society, should not surprise us. Dr Huber has discovered that early risers are slimmer, happier, healthier and more successful than those who lie in. Well, is Richard Dawkins atheist? Does the sun rise in the East? Are you up early enough to answer that one empirically?
Every school child is taught the proverb: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Then they promptly forget it in favour of Tiger Tiger and the night bus home. The young are not unfamiliar with dawn: it is just that they glimpse it on the way to bed. Youth is about wilful abuse, age about wisdom and repair. It is an extraordinarily simple advantage. If the young slept and rose early, they would be masters of the universe instead of breakfasting on the remains of last night’s curry.
Moral philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to Tolstoy agree that virtue is inseparable from self-discipline and the dawn chorus. The nocturnal is lascivious or at least morally ambiguous. You are no safer on the streets of London than staying at Macbeth’s castle.
The new Commissioner of the Metropolitan, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has plenty of ideas for cutting crime, but he did not mention getting the capital to bed before 11pm and up by 7am. You turn your back on temptation and trouble the moment you put down your mug of cocoa and turn off the light.
The whole Anglo-Saxon work ethic is based on the early-to-rise proverb. My doubts about the eurozone owe much to suspicion about their working hours. It cannot be right to be eating in the late evening, children running round the tables, under the stars. No one should stay up later than Newsnight.
I noticed recently that even in the city that never sleeps, many New Yorkers were eating at 6.30pm and turning in soon after 9pm. It is an interesting combination of ancestral Presbyterianism and contemporary materialism. Thomas Jefferson rose with the sun. The UBS alleged “rogue trader” Kweku Adoboli beat him to it. He was arrested at his desk at 3.30am.
The link is proven productivity. No matter what students think, the mind is at its most alert in the early morning. It is the best time for meditation and for markets. Remember Jesus in St Mark’s Gospel: “Notwithstanding the fatigue of the former day … yet he rose up very early while it was very much within the night … and found a solitary place.” The message is that, “his early and private devotion may be an example to us all”.
A colleague who visited the new Westfield Stratford City last week noticed that out of the 200,000 or so shoppers who turned up on the first day, he saw no one heading for the Faith Space. Contemplation and shopping are contradictions in terms. It needs to open much earlier.
I love the noise and activity of London and appreciate even more the luxury of peace and quiet. This cannot happen any time before about 4am, which is when the sirens die down and the echoes of drunken singing or squealing from the main road are quelled into silence. Six in the morning is the “heroic minute” when virtue asserts itself and the day begins.
I know this moment by the alarm clock at the other side of the bed. It is the sound of a rushing river, which is meant to be both soothing and invigorating at once, but somehow evokes water boarding. I hate this hour, yet am forced to embrace it daily. First, because I have to get to the office for 7am. Second, because my husband is, by nature, a morning person. The righteousness of a morning person crosses the threshold of what is bearable. Of course I admire Francis of Assisi, but he would not have been easy to marry.
What I hear as I thump the pillow in futile rage is the sound of someone downstairs chopping a banana in a bowl while listening to Radio 4 – a man in running shorts and a sweaty T-shirt. As I push past him, still incapable of fluent speech, he greets me cheerily. It is the clear bass voice of a person who might easily embark on a Welsh hymn. Nothing I can do during the day can equal his moral stature.
As the days darken in winter, the virtuous really get going. It is one thing running along the river path when the mist is rising, the birds are singing their heads off and the promise of sun warms your back. It is another when it is still dark and wintry. I have heard that we are overwhelmed by a pre- evolutionary need to hibernate. So it takes a particular kind of Protestant will to be up and out.
The rewards are there in town as well as country. We scoff that our hours are set by Scottish farmers, but better that than by louche nightclub owners. Tolstoy was right that virtues of the morning are essentially those of the peasant – hard work, sobriety, fortitude. And the evening is for the decadent, pampered and wealthy, food, drink and sex.
Actually, I don’t see why the sex should be exclusive to wealthy night owls. I once read Helen Mirren boast that her days started with a marital romp. The combination of sensuality and work ethic is probably what makes her such an astounding actress.
The early morning is the best time of the day on a practical and a spiritual level. It is all purpose and no obstacle. You are up before the traffic, the builders drills and the schoolchildren. Journey times are halved and there is plenty of space on public transport. As I walk to work, I pass delivery lorries, stall holders, newspaper sellers, all cheerful because they can get on with their work without road rage or pedestrians on their BlackBerries crashing into each other. We say “good morning” to each other. Nobody greets another after 9am.
The world is much clearer for being uncluttered and you notice far more. The gardening writer Rosemary Verey wrote: “The stillness of the early morning scene enables me to take in and enjoy many things which pass me by during the bustle of the day.”
This is true inwardly as well as outwardly. There is a reason that the mornings have a particular resonance in religious observance. The dawn is the setting for contemplation. For those of melancholy dispositions or insomniacs it is also a period of relief. The night is over. It is the contrast which makes the morning seem kindly. Tolkien had it: ” You can only come to the morning through the shadows.”
The morning is also an obvious metaphor for hope. At 6am the world is full of possibilities. By 10pm, all you can say is that it is one day less to go. Students may work through the night, but I notice that professional writers usually rise early and work until the afternoon. It is only the last half of the day that you can afford to waste.
I have never read a chief executive boast of being a late riser. Nope, they are all up at 6am, tending to emails or running marathons. The breakfast meeting is a formalised reproach to the professional lazybones. In fact, it is a rare moment of competitive delight for me that I can turn down breakfast meetings on the grounds that for those of us on an evening newspaper it is the busiest time of the day .
I concede that getting up early can be a belligerent virtue. We spent a weekend in France during the summer with some theatre folk. They ate at about 10pm, their conversation witty and languorous. The slept until late morning. As my husband and I crunched up the drive in our walking boots under the windows of the sleeping beauties, I was aware of seeming a little bit German.
But if Aristotle says that it is better to be up before daybreak, it would be wilful to ignore him. A lesson in life is that it is usually much shorter than you think. As I grow older I become horrified about wasting time. My teenagers point out that they watch rubbish television until the early hours and sleep to midday because they can. Time indulges them. But I am already counting off the many things I will never achieve in my lifetime.
The early morning is the only hope of making up lost time – the hours, as the poets see it, between the past and the future. So set up your tormenting alarm ring tone – and arise!